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At seven years of age, I am not comfortable at all being alone. It is a very unsettling feeling. Nerve-wracking. The sense of uncertainty over whether anyone will come back to get me. That I will be abandoned and left behind. Well, I already am left behind, so the fears are well founded.
My coping mechanism, when terrified at this age, is to cry and then shrink into a corner.
But I don’t want anyone to witness my fragility. I have to keep that hidden.
As I search for a place to disappear into, I stumble across an unlocked gate to an enclosure. There are no people on the other side in the enclosure and my youthful brain interprets this as a secure place then in which to hide and cry.
I do not even hesitate to go in. Keeping my emotional fragility hidden far outweighs the explicit warning from the park owner that “everything in Australia can kill you.”
In recent years, I have often wondered how the course of any life might change if these small insignificant moments in our lives were different. How strong is their influence on the outcome of our existence? What if we had not gone to this animal park this day? Could my life be completely different? And this moment occurred 48 years ago. How grand do defining moments in a person’s life have to be to completely change the trajectory of their lives?
What if mum and dad had taken us kids for a hike this day instead of driving around the back streets? What if we went to the toad races? What if I had not needed to go to the bathroom?
What if? Can a life change that much from the effect of a moment that takes just five minutes to play out?
I wander a few steps into the pen and sit down with my back against the fence. Here, I will not have to be worried about seeing the faces of my parents, who could be embarrassed at the sight of their shrinking violet of a son, while at least they will see where I am and come get me. Hidden but obvious. A useful tactic in every child’s handbook.
It is at this point that I am aware that I am inside a large pen that has a group of kangaroos in it.
If there is one native Australian species that any person alive would prefer to be enclosed with, it is the kangaroo. Not with one of the world’s nine deadliest snakes out of the top ten. Not with a couple of saltwater crocodiles. Not with a collective of deadly drop bears. Give any man a docile, grass eating kangaroo every day of the week.
A group of kangaroos is most commonly referred to as a ‘mob.’ They also use the terms ‘troop’ or ‘court’. In this case I will stick with the use of ‘mob’ and then I can later casually toss in using the adjective ‘unruly.’
Most of the kangaroos are listlessly lying around scratching their groins, as these animals do most of the day, even in the wild. The life of a nature park animal exhibit is most likely 99% boredom until some inattentive staff member also leaves the gate to the crocodile pond ajar.
I sit against the fence, remaining perfectly still. One oversize Big Red kangaroo rises from its sprawl on the ground. He stretches himself upright, then laboriously rolls forward on its front paws to nibble on the tufts of brown grass. Observing me, he slowly paddles his way over to inspect the newest occupant of its pen.
The nickname given to any male kangaroo is either ‘boomer,’ ‘buck,’ or ‘jack.’ Sitting alone in an animal enclosure as a seven-year-old, while penned in by a beast on a comparative size scale as large as wrestling great Andre the Giant, I would also accept the use of the term ‘scary mother fucker.’
Scrambling to my feet, I then stand frozen. I swallow large measures of palpable fear as the animal sniffs at my cheek with its sizable, quivering nostrils. It is a disconcerting feeling, while it takes all my youthful willpower to not have my knees buckle and collapse. At seven, this is like staring death in the face.
Holding my breath, I desperately attempt not to flinch as the roo perches in front of me.
The other kangaroos in the ‘mob’ stand up and move into position to back up their ringleader. If my legs were not two sticks of gelatinous whale blubber sheathed in sausage casing, I might have run. There is no telling if this is the right thing to do, but it was one of the two options available to me on the table. The other one is cowering where I am and die.
The Big Red slowly leans forward and gently taps me on the chest with his paw. Barely a glancing touch, but still a well-intentioned threat. The native animals of Australia are still bullying the colonialists a good 200 years after we thought we took over the land. Humans may well be the most intelligent species, but no one sits down on a toilet seat and simply ignores an inland Taipan nestling in the water of the bowl, no matter how well developed our brains are.
What am I supposed to do against this animal? Defend myself? I could not fight my way out of a wet paper bag if I had on steel capped boots, a swastika tattooed on my forehead, and holding an M-16.
The kangaroo staring me in the face terrifies me.